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Despite tight race for Iowa governor, Lightfoot ahead among most likely voters

(Editors note: Copies of the latest 1998 Heartland Poll data are available by contacting University News Service, 319/384-0011. Arthur Miller is available for interviews at 319/335-2328 or at home at 319/338-3373.)

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Although the Iowa gubernatorial race has tightened, the latest results from the University of Iowa Heartland Poll indicate that Jim Ross Lightfoot still leads when only those most likely to vote are examined. In its second wave of data collection, the Poll also found that voter turnout is likely to be affected by the negative tone of the gubernatorial race, as Iowans who see the campaign as negative are less likely to vote than those who do not view the campaign as overwhelmingly negative. In addition, those who see the campaign as mostly negative are more likely to vote for Vilsack.

As of Oct. 30, Lightfoot was ahead of his Democratic opponent, Tom Vilsack, by 10 percentage points among very likely voters (about 33 percent of all registered voters), with 5 percent of these individuals still undecided. However, among the 22 percent of registered voters who said they were somewhat likely to vote, the two candidates are virtually tied at 39 percent. About 22 percent of this group is still undecided. Among the 45 percent of registered voters who are least likely to vote, Lightfoot still leads by 20 percentage points simply because a majority of these unlikely voters do not even know who Tom Vilsack is.

The 1998 Heartland Poll is the seventh in a series of surveys of the attitudes and opinions of individuals in Iowa and its six surrounding states: Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. It contains various questions relating to the political campaign of 1998 as well as other topics of national and regional interest, such as the economy. The Poll is conducted in election years by the Iowa Social Science Institute, under the direction of Arthur H. Miller, a UI professor of political science.

The latest data come from interviews with 552 respondents in the second wave of polling, conducted from Oct. 20-30. The margin of error for this sample is +/- 4.3.

The Poll indicates that partisans on both sides of the political fence have become generally less negative toward political figures. The personal popularity ratings of political figures have shifted substantially since the first wave of Heartland Poll surveys was conducted between Oct. 5-19. Both Democrats and Republicans appear to be less angry than they were in the first wave. For Republicans, Bill Clinton's personal popularity has jumped almost 7 points. For Democrats, both Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr have seen about a 12-point increase. On the other hand, among Independents, there has been a decline in support for Democratic political figures and increasing support for Republicans.

"The unhappiness with the Republicans that was exhibited by respondents during wave one of the interviews is most likely explained by the timing of the interviews," Miller said. "Interviews conducted during wave one began on Oct. 5, the day the House Judiciary Committee voted to open impeachment hearings. This vote was quickly followed by the general House vote for the impeachment inquiry. On the other hand, the second wave of interviews were conducted during a time when the national media coverage focused on the budget battle in Congress and the Middle East peace accord."

Although the first wave of Heartland Poll interviews found that Democrats were energized by their anger over the perceived partisanship of the Starr investigation and impeachment inquiry, this second wave of data indicate that Democratic interest in the election has dropped off. Among all registered voters, the percentage of people who would vote for a Democrat in their local House race has declined from 54.3 percent to 50.6 percent, and the percentage who would vote for a Republican has increased from 45.7 percent to 49.4 percent. Similar trends appear among those voters who are most likely to vote, where those supporting the Democrats decreased from 52.9 percent to 51.9 percent while those supporting the Republicans increased from 47.1 percent to 48.1 percent.

The decline in anger over the investigation of the Clinton/Lewinsky matter has caused the entire affair to be less relevant to the upcoming election. Clinton's job approval remains stable, and Democratic candidates are less likely to be perceived as distancing themselves from Clinton. The decrease in anger over Republican handling of the investigation has helped Republicans among Independents and reduced the mobilizing impact among Democrats, Miller said.

The Iowa Governor's Race Tightens

As election day approaches, the race for governor in Iowa has tightened. Yet when only those most likely to vote are examined, Jim Ross Lightfoot still holds a lead over his Democratic opponent. As of Oct. 30, Jim Ross Lightfoot was ahead of Tom Vilsack by 10 percentage points among very likely voters (about 33 percent of all registered voters), with 5 percent of these individuals still undecided. However, among Iowans who are somewhat likely to vote (22 percent of registered voters), the two candidates are virtually tied at 39 percent, with 22 percent undecided. Among the least likely voters (45 percent of registered voters), Lightfoot still leads by 20 percentage points simply because a majority of these unlikely voters do not even know who Tom Vilsack is.

The major factors influencing the tightening of the race are the increased visibility of Tom Vilsack (Democrat) and the tone of the campaign. During the period covered by wave one of the Heartland Poll (Oct. 5-19) roughly one-third (36 percent) of Iowa's registered voters did not know Tom Vilsack. Vilsack's name recognition level has now increased. In wave two of the survey (Oct. 20-30), slightly less than one-quarter of Iowa voters did not recognize Vilsack's name.

As Vilsack becomes better known, he continues to gain on Lightfoot, but his gain is clearly affected by the partisanship of likely voters. Currently, in Iowa, Republicans are experiencing a somewhat higher interest in the campaign and likelihood of voting than are Democrats. The challenge for Democrats, therefore, is still one of mobilizing their core constituents.

The tone of the gubernatorial campaign also appears to be having a major impact on both the eventual turnout in the election and the vote outcome. In general, the campaigns for the Iowa governor and senate seats are perceived as less negative than similar races in other Midwestern states. Wave one of the Heartland Poll revealed that 34 percent of Iowans saw the gubernatorial campaign as negative and 38 percent assessed the campaign as negative in wave two. This is considerably lower than the 60 percent of respondents from the other Midwestern states who saw their gubernatorial campaigns as mainly negative. The senate race in Iowa is seen as even less negative in tone (27 percent negative).

Yet the negativity associated with the Iowa gubernatorial race is clearly depressing interest in the campaign among those who see the campaign as overwhelmingly negative (see Figure 1). In addition, perceiving the campaign as negative is definitely correlated with the vote choice for governor. Those likely voters who see the campaign as negative are more likely to vote for Vilsack, whereas those who see the race as positive are more likely to support Lightfoot (see Figure 2). It could very well be that those who were set on supporting Vilsack simply see the tone of the campaign as more negative than those who were supporting Lightfoot. On the other hand, these data appear to suggest that the negative tone of the campaign may be backfiring on Lightfoot.

The race for Senator between Chuck Grassley and David Osterberg is not only perceived as less negative in tone, it is also a far more lopsided race. Grassley has a very comfortable lead (20 percent), largely because two-thirds of Iowa voters do not recognize Osterberg's name or know for which office he is running.

While Republicans hold a lead in the governor and senate races in Iowa, the reported congressional vote across the state is tighter (8 percent difference for most likely voters). Among these likely voters, Republicans hold a lead, but this drops as turnout increases just as in other parts of the country. Clearly the election outcome in Iowa and the Midwest more generally depends on the extent to which the two parties mobilize their supporters.

Mobilizing Democrats

The 1998 Heartland Poll's first wave of interviews demonstrated that a large majority of Midwesterners felt that the Starr investigation and impeachment proceedings were partisan and opposed removing Clinton from office. These same perceptions were energizing Democratic supporters in local races. The second wave of interviews have demonstrated, however, that Midwesterners have become generally less angry, especially towards the Republicans in the past two weeks.

Perceptions about the tone of both gubernatorial and senate races in the Midwest are viewed more positively in wave two than wave one (See Figure 3). The shift in perceptions has been less marked in senate races, however, where only 3 percent of respondents view the campaign tone as "mostly" instead of "somewhat" positive. In the senate races, perceptions about the negativity of the campaign have remained stable.

Partisans on both sides of the political fence have become generally less negative toward political figures. Table 1 demonstrates that the personal popularity ratings of political figures have shifted substantially since our first wave of surveys was conducted. Both Democrats and Republicans appear to be less angry than they were in the first wave. For Republicans, Bill Clinton's personal popularity has jumped almost 7 points. For Democrats, both Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr have seen about a 12-point increase. On the other hand, among Independents, there has been a decline in support for Democratic political figures and increasing support for Republicans.

The unhappiness with the Republicans that was exhibited by respondents during wave one of the interviews is most likely explained by the timing of the interviews. Interviews conducted during wave one began on Oct. 5, the day the House Judiciary Committee voted to open impeachment hearings. This vote was quickly followed by the general House vote for the impeachment inquiry. (Recent campaign ads aimed at the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal did not begin until the second wave of interviews ended.) On the other hand, the second wave interviews were conducted during a time when the national media coverage focused on the budget battle in Congress and the Middle East peace accord. The declining coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky matter and the passing of time could explain the decline of voter anger seen during wave two.

This lack of attention may have caused the decrease in sympathy towards Bill Clinton, especially among Independents. Although perceptions of the Clinton/Lewinsky matter have remained stable since wave one (63.7 percent see it as a private matter; 68.7 percent view the Starr investigation as partisan), wave two respondents are more ambiguous in their opinions about the aftermath. In our first wave, about 3 percent more respondents viewed an extramarital affair as completely irrelevant to voting (from 60.7 percent to 57.5 percent). Increasingly, respondents claim that it depends on the circumstances (from 46.7 percent to 53.3 percent).

The percentage of respondents perceiving the impeachment process as entirely partisan has also declined by about six percentage points (from 59.4 percent to 53.9 percent). Nevertheless, respondents in wave two are more likely to prefer the entire Starr investigation simply end while fewer prefer a congressional censure (See Figure 4).

Declining Relevance of Clinton/Lewinsky Matter

The decline in anger over the investigation of the Clinton/Lewinsky matter has caused the entire affair to be less relevant to the upcoming election. Clinton's job approval remains stable, and Democratic candidates are less likely to be perceived as distancing themselves from Clinton. The decrease in anger over Republican handling of the investigation has helped Republicans among Independents and reduced the mobilizing impact among Democrats.

The decline in the saliency of the Clinton/Lewinsky matter has had a significant impact upon those people most likely to vote in Tuesday's election. We present evidence of this impact in Table 2. Table 2 examines the likelihood of voting among self-described Democrats and Republicans. Comparing the two time periods indicates that the number of Democrats who are most likely to vote has fallen while the corresponding number of Republicans has increased slightly. There is now approximately an equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans that are most likely to vote on Tuesday.

The effect of the declining saliency of the Clinton/Lewinsky matter can be clearly seen when we look at likelihood of voting among self-described strong Democrats and Republicans. The percentage of strong Democrats who are most likely to vote has dropped from 78.6 percent in the first wave to 67.9 percent currently. The percentage of strong Republicans who are most likely to vote has slightly increased from 68.7 percent in the first wave to 69.1 percent currently. When comparing the change in likelihood of voting by gender, income, education, income, and race, we find that the percentage of people in each group who are most likely to vote has generally declined as we move closer to the election. Only among women, blacks, and voters over the age of 50 has the percentage of people most likely to vote increased as we move closer to the election.

In short, the declining saliency of the Clinton/Lewinsky matter has slightly de-energized the Democrats while having little impact upon the Republicans (see Figure 5). Among all registered voters, the percentage of people who would vote for a Democrat in their local House race has declined from 54.3 percent to 50.6 percent, and the percentage who would vote for a Republican has increased from 45.7 percent to 49.4 percent. We find similar trends among those voters who are most likely to vote, where those supporting the Democrats decreased from 52.9 percent to 51.9 percent while those supporting the Republicans increased from 47.1 percent to 48.1 percent. When comparing the change in party support by gender, income, education, income, and race, we find that Republicans are gaining support among most groups as we move closer to the election. The only exception is among Blacks and Asians. These results seem to indicate that the congressional races in the Midwest are now very close and will largely be determined by local factors such as turnout and candidate viability.

Relevance of Election Outcome

The number of congressional seats won or lost by each political party will in part determine the mandate or meaning of the 1998 election. Historically speaking, as determined by the last five off-year elections, we would expect the Republicans to gain 21 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. Republican gains that are smaller than these historical expectations should realistically be interpreted as a victory for the Democrats. No doubt, however, no matter how few seats the Republicans gain they will claim a victory. There is virtually no possibility that Democrats will pick up House or Senate seats, as such a net gain for the party that controls the presidency has happened only once during the past 100 years.

The meaning of the election will also be determined by the media and political pundits by asking voters in exit polls why they voted the way they did. These exit polls will be watched closely to determine to what extent voters refer to the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal as the reason for their vote. The Heartland Poll data demonstrates that we can expect only about 35 percent of the voters to mention the affair as relevant to their vote if they are asked that question directly (it would be even less when asking an open-ended question about what influenced their vote).

However, the Heartland data also demonstrate that a majority of Republicans (57 percent) in both Iowa and the Midwest more generally say that the Lewinsky affair is relevant to their vote. By comparison, only 15 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Iowa Independents (30 percent of Independents in the rest of the Midwest) see the affair as relevant to the election and their vote. Thus, most Republicans see the affair as an important issue but most Democrats and Independents do not.

Given that Republicans stand to gain some seats in the House and Senate, and given that their core constituency sees Clinton's morals as relevant to the election, despite the fact that a majority of the general public does not see the affair as relevant, we can expect the Republicans to claim that it was a vote to continue with impeachment proceedings against Clinton. Yet, an increasing percentage (now 40 percent) of Midwesterners want the whole investigation of Bill Clinton to be simply dropped (another 23 percent say he should be only censured). Moreover, 64 percent of Iowans and 60 percent of Midwesterners believe that Clinton will be an effective president in the next two years.

Most Midwesterners will not read the election outcome as a referendum on Clinton's morality although a majority of Republicans will hold that interpretation. This may be simply a reflection of the fact that Republicans are unified in their view of Clinton's morality, but they are not as unified on what to do with the current federal budget surplus. A majority of Republican rank and file prefer to save social security rather than cut taxes, while the Republican leadership prefers to cut taxes. Perhaps the fact that the Republican leadership in Washington is out of step with ordinary Republicans on cutting taxes versus saving social security is the reason why they are focusing public attention on Clinton's morals. Although the election debate has not focused on these economic issues, it is exactly these topics that the next Congress will need to address.

11/2/98